News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

July 26, 2012

MARK BENNETT: The art’s impressive, but the history? Not so much

TERRE HAUTE — Zeppo Marx gazed up at it.

Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt saw it, too. So did some of America’s most notorious mobsters.

In fact, anyone who spent even a few minutes in the Terre Haute Federal Building courtroom during its active era — 1935-2009 — had to see “The Signing of the Magna Carta,” a mural on the wall behind the judge’s bench. In the words of gas-station tour guides, “you can’t miss it.” Really. The artwork dominates the room, spanning 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall. Shelbyville-born artist Frederick Webb Ross gave Marx, Hunt, the gangsters, other defendants, lawyers, jurors, witnesses and audience members plenty to see as their minds wandered.

Ironically, though hundreds of outsiders viewed the picture when obligated to visit the U.S. District Court on the second floor of the Terre Haute Federal Building, only a fraction of Vigo County residents have seen the rare, magnificent Ross mural in person. That situation will soon change.

Next month, Indiana State University opens its Scott College of Business in that same building, now known as Federal Hall. Contractors are wrapping up the final steps of a $20 million renovation of the stone-and-metal structure, converting it into classrooms and offices. It once housed the U.S. Post Office; local branches of the Social Security Administration; the Wage and Hours Division of the U.S. Department of Labor; the IRS; U.S. bankruptcy court; federal clerk’s office; military recruiters; and the Vigo County ag agent.

It’s most high-profile space, though, belonged to the federal courtroom, which ISU intends to use for banquets, workshops, speeches and community townhall-style meetings.

The national spotlight shined on the courtroom during the sweltering summer of 1959. Federal agents had busted the nation’s largest illegal gambling syndicate on Nov. 29, 1957, in — you guessed it — downtown Terre Haute. The trial, nearly two years later, involved more than 100 subpoenaed witnesses and gamblers, including Marx and Hunt, who used the Terre Haute bookmakers.

That trial lasted six colorful, grueling weeks. So everybody there got lots of time to study the Magna Carta mural.

Those unwitting art patrons may not have understood what they were seeing on that wall behind the judge. Ross’ graphic features the larger-than-life figures of King John I of England, rebellious barons challenging his authority, soldiers, horses and even a dog. The mural is so large, it comes in three panels, which Ross crafted in his studio in New York City and had shipped back to Indiana for assembly in Terre Haute by Public Works Administration employees.

If not for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal remedies for the Great Depression, the mural would not exist here. The short-lived Public Works of Art Project by the U.S. Treasury funded Ross’ project. He was 49 years old when he took on the job, working as an illustrator, painter and muralist in the Big Apple. Ross attended Indianapolis Shortridge High School, studied art in Indy, left for more instruction in New York, and continued his arts education in France, Italy and England. Back in New York, he finished the Magna Carta mural for the still-under-construction Terre Haute Federal Building, dated it June 19, 1934, and shipped it off.

The rest of Ross’ life story remains a mystery. Even his death date is unknown.

One facet of Ross is certain. “He was a fine artist, but a poor history student,” U.S. Magistrate and Terre Haute native Craig McKee pointed out in one of the federal courthouse’s final official activities, a 2009 citizenship ceremony.

The renovations by ISU, and the U.S. General Services Administration before that, cleaned the mural to its original brightness. Those touchups could not fix its historical inaccuracies, though.

At its base, Ross drew an ornate nameplate, with “The Signing of the Magna Charta” on the top line (using its variant spelling), and on the bottom, “Through this Document Government Exists According to Law not Power.” In between, Ross added a date — “June 15-1214 A.D.”

The year should have been 1215.

And that’s not all.

The scene shows a rather disgusted looking King John signing a parchment, watched by barons and armed soldiers in the meadow of a forest at Runnymede in southern England. It looks dramatic, but the original Magna Carta contained no signatures. The common practice in 13th-century Europe was for kings to affix their royal seal to a treaty or document, thus giving it authenticity.

But, aside from the date thing and the king’s actual actions, Ross’ gigantic picture still delivers the ultimate message — the Magna Carta was a big deal.

It was written by about 40 barons, angered by King John’s tyrannical actions. They confronted him at Runnymede, and the king gave in to their demands to avert a civil war, according to the U.S. National Archives. In reality, the barons had no interest in the plight of the common man, but their Magna Carta endured the test of time, and wound up inspiring the American Revolution, and the U.S. Constitution.

In fact, the Fifth Amendment, probably invoked countless times in that Terre Haute federal courtroom, draws from the Magna Carta — “No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Terre Hauteans and the ISU community will soon be able to admire the origins of a free society without a standoff in an English meadow or having to be on trial in a courtroom. But when you see the “1214 A.D.” and the quill in King John’s hand, just remember — Ross’ mural is art, not a page in a history book, so don’t make a federal case out of it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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